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April 01, 2013

Changing Your Family’s Toxic Legacy

IStock_00couple alcoholAll human beings have been -- and continue to be -- greatly influenced and impacted by our family of origin. Some of these influences have been great and some have been toxic. And all of these influences impact the legacy we pass on to our children. For those who don’t have children, these influences impact the personal legacy we leave in the world. 

 What is particularly hard on couples, individuals and families, though, are the toxic legacies. Toxic legacies leave a tsunami of damage in families and in our world. Most of the time, these toxic legacies are unconsciously lived out and sadly passed on from one unsuspecting generation to the next. Before you know it, a person can look back a hundred years and see the same insidious, painful patterns back then that are being played out in the present day. Why is that? It seems crazy that people can’t learn to not repeat the same mistakes their great-great-great grandparents, grandparents and more recently their own parents made. Is it in our DNA to repeat the same toxic behaviors as those who have come before us? Are our destinies pre-wired? 

 Let me start by defining “toxic legacy.” A toxic legacy is a pattern of hurtful, painful and/or damaging behaviors that have been handed down from one generation to another through role modeling.  When parents repeatedly interact in a family system in an unhealthy way, they are imprinting this behavior on their children. The children (us, let’s say) then often grow up and repeat the behaviors we saw played out everyday of our childhood. As children, “we live what we know and we know what we lived.” As we grow up, we repeat what we learned in the first 18 years of our lives. And if we don’t repeat it ourselves, we often marry someone who does. 

 Examples of toxic legacies include:

  • • Perfectionism and control
  • • Alcohol or drug addiction
  • • Raging, bullying, aggression
  • • Co-dependency
  • • Silence, withdrawal or walling off
  • • Workaholism
  • • Affairs
  • • High reactivity and defensiveness
  • • Grandiosity and entitlement

As you can see, there are many different types of toxic legacies that are killing families and marriages every day. One workaholic dad raises another workaholic dad who raises another. Subsequently, each workaholic father raises his son to be a great provider and…a crappy, absent father.

You get the picture. 

Does this mean, then, that we are destined to repeat the toxic legacies in which we were raised? Yes and no. If we blindly keep doing what we’re doing then yes, we are destined to repeat what we lived.  If we take the blinders off and have the courage to do things differently, then we can change a family legacy. 

The number one predictor of repeating the toxic legacy or changing it, in my experience, is CONSCIOUSNESS. Too often we are utterly unconscious about what we are passing on. Even when we’re aware that our parent’s anger, addiction, reactivity, etc., was off the charts and toxic, we’re often blind to our own. This is especially true when the behavior we do, in our mind, “isn’t nearly as bad as what my mom/dad was like.” We can deceive ourselves by thinking, “S/he was out of control. I don’t beat my wife or children; I just get angry sometimes.” You can replace the issue of anger with any other issue and it is the same deception. Until we’re truly honest with ourselves, and willing to see how we’re impacting those around us, we are destined to repeat what we lived.  

It’s time to stop the toxic legacies. These legacies are wreaking havoc in our relationships, our lives and our world. We have to pay attention to what we’re teaching our children. We can’t be afraid to look at what our parents taught us. We will benefit when we tune into the messages our loved ones are telling us rather than defend against them. 

One of the greatest gifts we can give to ourselves and our loved ones is the gift of emotional health. It’s time we all did our own work so our children don’t have to. It’s time we changed our toxic legacy. 

Challenge: Get conscious. Take some time to think about the toxic legacies in your family history. Take an honest look at whether or not these are being played out in and through you currently. If they are, have the courage to take steps to change your toxic legacy.





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We hear an awful lot from adult children and their therapists about getting over and cutting off a "toxic mom" or "toxic parents and in-laws" and far too little about the passing on of "toxic family legacies". The growing epidemic of Grandparent Alienation is a toxic family legacy. Grandparent Alienation Is Not Natural or Healthy.

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